Game Over Review: A Taut Thriller Single-Handedly Elevated by Taapsee Pannu

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Game Over Review: A Taut Thriller Single-Handedly Elevated by Taapsee Pannu

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Awoman’s body is both, her biggest weakness and her greatest weapon. If the world derives pleasure out of brutalising it, women respond to that assault by using their bodies as tools of resistance. Ashwin Saravanan’s Game Over – a Tamil psychological home-invasion slasher thriller, that is also dubbed in Hindi and Telugu thrives on this precise duality. There’s arguably no other actor in the current generation who can bring this out better than the physically alert Taapsee Pannu. In the film, the actress embodies it with such ferocity that it feels less like a performance and more like a statement. 

Game Over opens as a familiar slasher film. It’s late at night on the outskirts of Gurgaon and a young woman strolls out to her gate to collect her food order from a delivery boy. It takes a minute for the film to reveal that we’re observing her from the point-of-view of a serial killer, who watches her as she eats her dinner inside her house, takes a shower, and then falls asleep. What ensues is a brutal, merciless killing that tests the fine line between perverseness and originality.

It’s this chilling murder set-piece that forms the background for the opening credits, featuring headlines about the exploits of this serial killer accompanied by montages of women alone at night. Even though, the deaths of these women are merely implied, it is still nauseating, partly due to the shaky hand-held movements of the camera, and mostly, due to Saravanan emphasising on how unaware these victims are about being watched. After all, for women living in urban cities packed with high-rises that “appear” safe, it’s this fear of being watched even within the confines of their own homes, that is the greatest horror of all.

But then, just when Game Over eases you into assuming its genre, the film quickly transforms into a suffocating psychological thriller eerily reminiscent of Pavan Kirpalani’s criminally underrated Phobia. It begins a year after the killings and revolves around the troubled Swapna (Pannu), a video-game designer who isolates herself in the aftermath of a violent sexual assault. Almost a year since the attack, Swapna is perennially scared of the dark and  paranoid about spending more than a minute alone in a room. She takes to working from home, whiling away her days trying to beat the highest score in Pacman under the watchful supervision of her motherly caretaker Kalamma (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan), who remains her only contact with the outside world.

The trouble starts when Swapna starts experiencing what her psychiatrist terms “anniversary reaction” debilitating panic attacks and flashes of her assault as the one-year mark inches closer. Pannu, a strikingly gifted performer, doesn’t so much act as she appears. As Swapna, a woman whose body is her only refuge, the actress infuses her body language with an instinctive fluidity. It’s the little details that stay, like the helpless specificity with which she moves her tied-up legs the moment her assaulter touches her in a flashback scene. It’s a sudden jerk, a movement that conveys a mix of fear, resignation, and agony with a clarity that is goose-bump inducing.

But then, just when Game Over eases you into assuming its genre, the film quickly transforms into a suffocating psychological thriller – eerily reminiscent of Pavan Kirpalani’s underrated Phobia.

The situation at hand, is further exacerbated by a tattoo on Swapna’s hand that starts acting up, mysteriously. The tattoo is bestowed a supernatural backstory that ingeniously entwines unspoken sisterhood and the scars of violence that get imprinted on women’s bodies. It’s an ambitious spin, in line with a hundred odd things happening in the film: A VR reality therapy angle that goes nowhere, an unnecessary emotional exposition that spoonfeeds a connection, and a manipulative accident.

But even when Game Over falls short of living up to the ambitions it teases, it is never not gripping or flat out terrifying. The film benefits from its atmospheric cinematography that succeeds in conveying the fear that resides in one’s imagination, and Sarvananan is a clever director, who revels in economy. With a run-time of a little over 100 minutes, Game Over is tautly shot, has bare minimum dialogues (although the Hindi dub is awfully out-of-sync), and earns its jump scares. But most of all, it is Pannu, owning every single frame she is in, who elevates the film’s intentions, even when its execution doesn’t go all the way.

The film’s grand ideas slowly reveal their layers in its violent, messy, and tortuous third-act that plays out like a video-game, rape-revenge fantasy, and slasher thriller, all at once. The serial killer from the film’s opening sequence makes a comeback, and the reversal of his hunter status, almost redeems its frequent clumsiness. It’s nearly impossible to not be left awestruck by how Game Over uses every second of its final 30 minutes to craft and sustain a tale of bodily rebellion: Under attack, Swapna, crawls with broken legs, tolerates physical violence, and repeatedly puts her body in harm’s way to ultimately save herself.

At its core then, Game Over is a striking exercise in wish-fulfillment: for women battling demons, for women stuck within their demons, and for the women who overpower their demons, in vain. Yet enjoying the film also comes with a caveat: the more you want to read in between the lines of its wildly satisfying payoff (either as a comment on misogyny or female empowerment), the less interesting it becomes.